Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, dining, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. Ruby Boukabou checks in from Biarritz in France...
Surf, sun and seafood are just three of many reasons to spend part of your next European vacation in Biarritz.
Sitting pretty on the Atlantic coast below the Pyrenees Mountains, and just a short distance from the border with Spain, this elegant French Basque Country resort town is the perfect location for a relaxed sojourn.
Getting to and from Biarritz is a breeze. There are several flights and train services a day from Paris, and air connections from a number of other European cities. The drive from Bordeaux will take you around two hours, or less than two hours from Bilbao in Spanish Basque Country.
Enjoy this Biarritz travel guide.
Biarritz for history lovers
Biarritz is a town with a knack for reinvention.
Known as Beariz in the Middle Ages, it was a humble centre for fishing and whale hunting. Whale products were used for whitening houses and making clothes, and as a food source (the tongue was a specialty reserved for guests of honour!). The Port Vieux (Old Port) still has oodles of old-world charm. Lunch on the catch of the day as the small fishing boats go in and out, shadowed by the surrounding cliffs that protect the port during stormy weather.
The seaside surroundings caught the eye of French Emperor Napoleon III, and he had a grand villa built for holidays with his wife — the Empress Eugénie. If you’re feeling flush, you can stay at or dine/drink at what is now the imposing Hôtel du Palais. You may also like to visit the emperor’s circa 1864 Chapelle Impériale church. Reflecting Roman-Byzantine and Moorish architectural styles, it’s now classed as a historical monument.
Inspired by the presence of Napoleon and Eugénie, royals from across Europe flocked to Biarritz. Kings, queens, princes and princesses from Belgium, Portugal, Russia and Poland all became regular visitors, alongside members of the English aristocracy.
The Jazz Age of the 1920s ushered in extra exuberance and frivolity and Biarritz was recast as a sort of Paris-on-the-sea. Later, the likes of Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper and Frank Sinatra would swing by, bolstering the region’s star-pulling power even further.
In the late 1950s, Biarritz inadvertently emerged as the epicentre of surf culture in Europe. It began when Californian filmmaker and surfer Peter Viertel was on the set of Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises and couldn’t resist having his surfboard sent over. The sport boomed and Biarritz was redefined yet again.
Biarritz offers a packed calendar of cultural events and activities.
Pop into the excellent tourism office on your arrival to check what’s on. There are plenty of annual festivals, alongside concerts, theatrical performances, recitals and exhibitions.
Live music fans should check out Ventilo Café on rue Mazagran. It has a lively crowd and stays open till 2am.
It’s easy to understand why artistic types are drawn to Biarritz. There are several independent galleries around town, including those of Sylvain Cazenave (a well-travelled surfer and sports photographer) and Anne Broitman, which showcases the work of local artists working across various media and styles.
Also pay a visit to the Gothic Revival-style Church of Saint Eugénie, which holds free temporary exhibitions. In fact, most of the churches around town are worth seeing for their beautiful religious paintings, sculptures and stained-glass windows.
The Cité de l’Océan is a fantastic museum dedicated to the preservation of the world’s oceans and marine life. The aquarium is great, especially for the kids. Catch the seal feeding sessions or gaze at the mysterious eagle rays gliding by.
Great places to eat in Biarritz
Cured meats, cheeses, green peppers, fresh seafood, and local beer and wine all have a place on Biarritz tables.
Pintxos (the local term for tapas) are offered in many of the bistros and bars around town and are a wonderful and cost-effective way to try a variety of local specialties.
There are dozens of restaurants around bustling Les Halles — one of Biarritz’s best loved neighbourhoods and home to the city’s central market. Try Chistera & Coquillages for delicious pintxos (including sumptuous curry prawns, scallops and shellfish) washed down with a local blonde beer.
For great seafood and ocean views, head for the delightfully rustic Casa Juan Pedro at the Port Vieux. It has pleasant outdoor seating and a sunny disposition.
Trendy spots for coffee or apéros include Etxola Bibi — a wooden kiosk overlooking La Plage de la Côte des Basques, where you’ll rub shoulders with the cool crowd (including, on occasion, French actor Vincent Cassel), and La Cabane à Huîtres — an oyster bar on Avenue Gambetta with plenty of personality. Next door, popular Saline Ceviche Bar serves up enticing seafood with a Peruvian twist.
Biarritz is not a cheap place to eat, especially in summer. If you’re on a budget, waterfront picnics are a cost effective and fun way to dine. Stock up on goodies at Les Halles market, and pick up a bottle of local rosé to go with your al fresco feast (La Casita de Burgos in Place Beaurivage has a good selection at equally good prices).
For a sightseeing pick-me-up, dive into a slice of traditional Gâteau Basque or any of the other sugary delights found in patisseries all over town. Chocoholics, you’ll definitely want to visit the city’s Museo del Chocolate!
Where to shop in Biarritz
The best way to discover Biarritz’s retail gems is simply by strolling.
Start by heading along Avenue Gambetta. It hosts a number of chic fashion boutiques, skincare shops and homeware stores, alongside a plethora of cafés and bistros for coffee or cold drinks.
Around Les Halles you’ll find stalls selling holiday staples like straw hats and espadrilles. Also check out famous French department store Galeries Lafayette. Then head downhill along Avenue Victor Hugo (stopping off at the Aladdin’s cave of delicatessens — 1001 Fromages) and past the beachside Belle Epoque Casino Barrière for designer boutiques like Hermes.
By now you’ll have worked up a sweat, so drop those purchases off at your hotel and head back to the beach!
Ways to relax in Biarritz
Golfing and surfing are two of Biarritz’s most appreciated pastimes.
The city’s first golf course — Le Phare — was opened by the English in 1888. There are now over a dozen courses across the region, which cater for players of all levels.
Accomplished surfers will have no trouble finding great breaks along the coast. Newbies can be initiated at the Biarritz Surf School. Sign up for the day or book in for an extended course (with accommodation and meals provided).
Not a golfer or surfer? That’s OK. The Biarritz coastline is so pretty and clean that it’s delightful just to hang about, and you’ll soon find yourself with a refreshed mind and spirit. Walk from the Hôtel du Palais, past the old-fashioned merry-go-round and along the popular Grand Plage. Pass the casino and head down to the Old Port. The Port Vieux beach is home to the Polar Bears Club, where swimmers of all ages brave the water 12 months of the year. Continue on until you reach the Côte des Basques, and don’t forget your swimsuit for spontaneous dips along the way.
Ruby’s new book — The Art Lover’s Guide to Paris (White Owl Books) — is now available in bookshops and to order online.
Do you have any tips to add to our Biarritz travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: La grande plage a Biarritz (1923). Artist: Jacqueline Marval. Image: Alamy. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Ruby Boukabou is a travel, culture and food writer based between Europe and Australia. Ruby has written for The Age, The Australian, Qantas, Issimo, The Diplomat, Paris Voice and Inside Film. She has also produced culture and travel stories for the ABC, SBS and Screen Australia. When Ruby’s not writing, she’s probably tap dancing — and is a founding member of the Paris Tap Crew. She’s also a member of jazz/world music group Le Shuffle Project, which records and performs in Paris and beyond.